Kareem Masarani has owned and operated Newport Tattoo for almost a decade now, but if you ask him, the decade prior was actually the most interesting one.
In 1994, a 20-year-old Masarani stepped foot in the now-historic (opened in 1989) shop for the first time—his first time in any tattoo parlor—as his then-girlfriend’s friend went to get inked. But it was the young artist who was asking all the questions.
“Everything [the tattooer] was pulling out looked so cool,” Masarani says. “I was just asking question after question about everything. I know he must’ve been getting sick of me asking all those questions, but I just couldn’t stop myself.”
From there, Masarani persuaded his older brother to let him borrow $500 for a tattooing kit he’d seen in the back of a magazine. With virtually no knowledge of tattoos outside of the outdated book that came in the kit and what he saw during his one trip to Newport Tattoo, Masarani both performed and received his first tattoo on his ankle before beginning to poorly ink his friends.
“I didn’t realize I could’ve practiced by not using ink, just to get a feel for the machine,” Masarani says. “It’s actually surprising how many people are willing to let you practice on them just for a free tattoo. Those tattoos weren’t that good, but they also weren’t that bad.”
Not wanting to mess up the skin of too many friends, Masarani put away his machine after only a handful of tattoos, vowing not to return to it until he could dedicate himself to the art form completely. In the meantime, Masarani worked as a bar-back in local bars and strip clubs. Then his roommate saw an ad for a fishing industry job in Alaska offering $1,000 per week, and Masarani found what he thought would be a quick payday for him.
“I packed up my Volkswagen Vanagon with all of my bags and set out for Washington to ferry over to Alaska,” Masarani says. “I called ahead and they told me the ferry would cost $350, but when I got there it was $750, and I didn’t have enough money to pay for that. The guy working there saw I was kind of freaking out, so he said if I went into Canada, the ferry would only cost $150. By the time I got to Alaska, all I had left was a bucket of change.”
Working in a cannery wasn’t the easiest gig, and Masarani actually had to catch his own dinner for a week after spending his last few bucks on fishing supplies. After two long weeks of fileting fish and sleeping in his van in the middle of the woods, Masarani returned to the lone tattoo shop in town, which he’d initially discovered. He received a job offer at almost immediately upon moving to the state.
“The shop was run by this big biker guy,” Masarani says. “I told him I’d apprenticed, so he asked me how many tattoos I’d done. I’d done so few that I could literally count them, but while I was counting them he stopped me and said ‘If it’s taking you this long to count them, then that’s plenty. But I’m going to need to see you do a tattoo.’ He stood over my shoulder as I started doing a tribal mermaid on this other big, burly biker’s leg. As soon as I went to pull the first line, I just started sweating and shaking.”
Despite his nerves, Masarani got the job and spent the rest of the summer tattooing in Alaska. For the following years, his newfound career on the road to everywhere from Tahoe to Vegas and back to Alaska once more before returning to OC in 2001. With enough experience under his belt to tattoo at just about any shop, Masarani knew that he wanted to return to the place where his fascination with tattooing began.
“Newport Tattoo always had a good name to it,” Masarani says. “The artists were really cool. The location is really cool. Everything about it just seemed really cool to me, so I knew it was the shop where I wanted to work.”
In 2006, after working at Newport Tattoo for about five years, Masarani was given the opportunity to purchase the shop he so admired. At the time, the tattooer didn’t have nearly enough money to complete the transaction, but Masarani knew he could come up with the money if he really focused on working as much as possible and blocked out everything else.
“I didn’t want to end up like ‘Did I really do everything I could do to come up with the money in time?’”Masarani says. “I did everything I needed to do. I didn’t have weekends. I wasn’t going out. I worked insane hours seven-days-a-week for quite a while to make it happen.”
Masarani doesn’t have to work every hour of every day anymore. Since expanding Newport Tattoo to a second location in 2010, Masarani’s more normal schedule has allowed for him to focus on his other passion: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. “
I love going to different gyms and training with different people, and I know a ton of the Brazilians around here because I’ve tattooed them,” Masarani says. “I actually started in jiu-jitsu by trading tattoos for private lessons before I even knew what an armbar was. I was blown away by how many ways there were to break someone’s arm or choke someone.”
Regardless of whether he’s training and coaching jiu-jitsu as a black belt at Triunfo Jiu-Jitsu and MMA in Costa Mesa or tattooing some of OC’s biggest names in MMA (Master Rafael Cordeiro, Ian McCall, etc.) at Newport Tattoo, Masarani ultimately wants to be a motivational tale for those around him.
“I think my story can be inspirational for people,” Masarani says. “It’s kind of my version of the American dream.”
Newport Tattoo, 2611 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, 949-673-5118, Instagram: @kareemtattoo